China - Round The World Tour 3 2004 Day 231 (41)

Chengdu

Monday 25th October

This morning was a real struggle. Because we were later getting back from Leshan than we had originally anticipated last night, I didn’t get to sleep until rather late. As it was, I was unable to finish my daily log and only managed to get through the rough notes before fully giving way to tiredness and finally nodding off. I’ve just finished writing up yesterday and am only now starting with today’s events.

We knew we wanted to go back to visit the Panda Research Centre to get another chance to visit the Pandas but without the ball and chain of a group of other people to have to follow and, hopefully, with better weather and lighting for the photography. We were really hoping that it would be clear skies when we awoke and, fortunately, it was from what we could tell through the dawn light. However, even though the sky was completely devoid of any cloud cover, there was a persistent mist hanging in the air. Similar to Beijing, its pale and opaque nature meant that it didn’t really look like pollution but I don’t know what else it could have been. Hoping that it would lift as morning fully broke, we made the decision to hope for the best and to go after all.

Even though the guy at the reception desk last night told us that a taxi to get there was going to be around ¥50 ($6) to ¥60 ($7,30), we decided it was a worthwhile trade-off and hailed an already waiting driver right outside of the hotel. The thirty minute ride to the centre only cost us ¥32 ($3,90) on the meter so we think the receptionist was actually trying to dissuade us from our evil plan to deprive the hostel from another ¥70 ($8,50) per person booking. Ha!

I don’t know if it was because we were slightly later in getting under way but there did seem to be fewer people in the park than the other day. After buying our ¥30 ($3,65) entrance tickets each, we went directly to the building where we had previously been able to meet a Giant Panda bear in person. Fortune was indeed smiling on us, today, as there was absolutely no other tourists or tour groups there. After attracting the attention of one of the handlers and making our intentions known, he whipped out the shoe protectors, gown and gloves and I exchanged ¥400 ($50) for them. This time, I would get to hold the Giant Panda cub and took my place on the bench. The handler came waddling out with the huge juvenile hanging between his arms, slapped him squarely onto my lap and fed him a slice of apple. It really is like holding a cuddly bear with the only different being that this is a real one with moving head and arms. He would grasp my hands and arms with one or more of his paws to stabilise himself so that he could grab and eat more apple slices. I could feel his nails curling round my fingers, almost like a baby might grasp your fingers when you put a finger into its hand. Indeed the overall experience was not too dissimilar from feeding an infant on your lap with a bottle. The posture is very much the same and the difficultly in keeping him still and upright is very much the same too. I remember when I once babysat Yasmin, one of my many nieces, and had to get up in the night to feed her. Her arms and legs would fly all over the place as she sat on my one knee with me using one hand to keep her steady and another to try to keep the bottle into her mouth. That’s exactly how it felt with the Giant Panda cub this morning. The tendency to anthropomorphise this cuddly little bundle of joy was so very uncontrollably strong. It is very hard to believe that after just eighteen to twenty-four months, even the experienced handlers don’t go into the enclosures or get very near the bears for fear of being attacked. You’d hardly believe it.

It was extremely gratifying to get to meet the Giant Panda cub, up close and in person - particularly so in the absence of the crazy, zoo-like at atmosphere of eighty or more yelling tourists all gawking at us like the last time. We left the bear and his handler extremely contented and with the feeling of having been able to do something very special. With so few Giant Panda bears left, there aren’t many people that can claim to have actually held one. I certainly hope and trust that the ¥800 ($100) in donations that we paid over the course of the two visits will be wisely appropriated and that these endearing animals will survive the very real threat of extinction in the long run.

We explored the rest of the park at our leisure this time and we were both able to appreciate everything that much more fully for it. We got to spend much more time observing the animals, appreciating and understanding their behaviour patterns better after watching them for longer. We even started to get to know some of their individual personalities after a while. None of this is possible when you are with a group of people and have a finite amount of time to grab whatever pictures you can before move on with the rest of the group. There were a few tour groups around and they were very loud as usual. The only upside to this was that we could hear them a mile off and were able to avoid them like the plague. We also made it back to the Red Panda pens again and once again indulged ourselves with another encounter each. The handlers there both recognised me from leaving my backpack behind last time and were all grins and laughs when we arrived. Coincidentally, we bumped into the same driver that took us that last time too. He was walking around with yet another group of half a dozen Western tourists and he too seemed to get a kick out of seeing us again. We also got to sit through the English language video presentation as a bonus. Once again, we completely filled a one Gigabyte memory card and half-filled another between the two digital cameras.

After we had seen all there was to see and fully enjoyed ourselves in the process, we made our way to the exit and thought about what to do about getting back to town. It seemed for a while that our options were extremely limited. I had hoped to just grab another taxi but with no more people arriving at the centre for the day, it didn’t look like a stay taxi was going to pass by. There was a minibus and a tout that wanted first ¥50 ($6), quickly haggled down to ¥35 ($4,25), but steadfastly refused to entertain any further haggling so I turned him down, repeatedly I might add, on principle alone. We sat there for about ten minutes before another Western couple emerged from the park and stepped straight in. We sat and watched them drive off. I wondered if we had just missed our one and possibly only opportunity to get back to Chengdu just for the sake of a few pennies. Sandy wondered this too but voiced it out aloud in a somewhat ‘what the hell did you go and do that for’ tone of voice. We sat there for another ten minutes pondering the enormity of the situation when a public bus suddenly emerged into view. We stopped it and I asked the driver if he was going into town. Fortunately, he was and for just ¥1 ($0,12) each, we stepped in. I basked in my own glow of warm satisfaction as I waved happily to the minibus tout that stood there watching her ¥35 fare drive off. She waved and smiled back and I think she saw the lighter side to it too. After all, there are tourists coming out of those gates all the time and most will think, as we initially did, that there are no other options but to get into the minibus and hand over the asking price.

The bus took the smaller roads and passed through some quaint Chinese villages. Indeed, we got to see a side of how the locals live that we probably otherwise wouldn’t have. The bus eventually pulled into what looked like a bus depot but it wasn’t anywhere that we recognised. In fact, couldn’t even say for certain that we were even in Chengdu. For some reason this didn’t really bother either of us. I was quite enjoying the whole experience, in fact. If the worst came to the worst, we had plenty of money with us and could always try to find a taxi to take us back to town but for now, we were quite happy to be completely lost and trying to make our own way around, travelling as the locals do. It’s only since the last couple of days that I’ve finally felt like I’m starting to approach understanding China. Up to this point, I’ve felt like an outsider with a barrier of separation between myself and the country around me. I’m now starting to feel this barrier breaking down and am quite enjoying it.

With a little bit of effort, a positive attitude and a bit of help from a few people we dared to ask for help, we finally figured out that there needed to take another bus to another location and then another bus from there to get us to where we wanted to be. Still carefree, we found the next bus and set off on our continued adventure. Just as this second bus approached the bus stop we had planned on changing buses again, we spotted a KFC and thought we’d indulge again. Shameful, I know but we were both in a good mood and felt like treating ourselves. We had to pass through a subway tunnel to get to the other side of the main road and to our surprise, there were dozens of market stalls lining the tunnels. After eating our fill, we explored this little subterranean shopping paradise and found, amongst other things, several little outlets selling a wide range of the very latest DVD release all for around just ¥6 ($0,70) or ¥7 ($0,85) each. They surely must be rip-offs but at that price, we could hardly pass up the opportunity and bought ten titles, mostly new releases we’ve not yet seen, for about half the cost of one DVD back home. We made sure that they were all region-1 encoded so that we could play them on the laptop and even if we had to throw them away after viewing, it would still be a bargain. We later tried them on the laptop and they are perfect reproductions if they are knocked-off.

We made the final leg of our journey by taxi, as we were by now both tired and simply wanting to get back and rest for a while. I spent another couple of hours in the nearby Internet café and fired off another round of updates to the regular groups of friends and family around the globe. I received an e-mail from someone with a World Nomads e-mail address asking me if a link that pointed to my blog page was actually mine. Our traveller’s insurance policy is with World Nomads. It makes me wonder just who is looking over our shoulder. Perhaps I shouldn’t have written that last bit about the knocked-off DVDs for fear of the feds listening in and swooping down on us at the next border crossing. Oh well, the cat’s out of the bag now.

Just a couple of doors away if a small shop with a line of massage tables and a very cheap pricelist posted. Each time we pass them by on the street, a woman out front tries to hand us a business card. Getting approached like this is a daily, nay hourly, occurrence and you cannot but try to ignore them much of the time. We thought we’d both treat ourselves to a bit of a rub down today, as this is our last day in Chengdu, so we wandered in and signed up for the full works. This consisted first of an hour’s worth of foot massage and was followed by a full body work-over. Towards the end of that second hour, the masseuse asked if we wanted the additional treatments. By now, I was so relaxed, I told him to go right ahead. I was face down at that moment and so didn’t get to see exactly what was going on by all manner of weird instruments were suddenly brought to bear on my back as he poked and prodded me with treatments such as cupping, scraping and some other strange things I’ve never heard of. At one point, he put what felt like lots of sucking devices all over my back. It was a very strange sensation and felt quite nice but it wasn’t until we got back to the hostel and I took my T-shirt off that Sandy pointed out numerous cup sized red welts all over my back. I look like a vampire has had a field day all over me.

I’ll finish with one last thought for tonight. In the blink of an eye, something happened today that has affected me more than any one event on this trip so far. As I was lying on the massage table, I happened to glance over towards the door and saw the old woman that was handing out business cards to passers-by outside the massage shop, and a Western couple happened to walk past right at that moment. The old woman stood up and made to hand them a business card but the couple have obviously been travelling for a while already and pretty much ignored her as they continued past, almost pushing the old woman out of the way as they did so. This is not unlike the sort of thing we’ve done countless times before ourselves. As this very brief scene played out in front of me, however, I got to see the after effect of this little interaction – something that I never otherwise get to see. I saw the genuine disappointment on the face of the old lady as she lost yet another customer. The Western couple may not even have acknowledged this woman’s existence but I saw the look in her eye. She watched the passing couple for a brief moment as they continued to walk on and when it became painfully clear that they were not going to stop and consider the offer or take the card even, she turned and slowly sat down again, no doubt thinking that perhaps the next couple to walk by might just take a card or even decide to come in for a treatment. It was a very sad and extremely poignant sight. I suddenly felt quite ashamed of myself when I considered all the people that I may have casually pushed to one side in a fleeting moment of irritation at being pestered or annoyed once again by someone simply trying to make a living as I walked along the street. We paid just ¥120 ($15) for a total of four hours or competent and professional massaging between the two of us this evening. That is an insignificant nothing to us, indeed we keep saying we should do this more often, yet it may mean a substantial source of income for this family of practitioners. I find it quite remarkable to think that these people make a living from people just like me that may or may not give a second thought to passing them by on the street and would think nothing of ignoring them or even pushing their outstretched hand to one side to try to get past. Today, I saw the hope fade in this woman’s eye as she tried to find another customer to help draw in the income to make ends meet. I saw the disappointment and anguish in her face when she failed to do so for what must have been the umpteenth time today. When I walk by and ignore these people trying to sell me something so many times a day, I don’t see that hope; I just see another annoying irritation that I try to pass quickly. This extremely brief moment in time has affected me a lot more than I care to admit and has given me a lot to think about. They say that travelling opens and broadens the mind. Perhaps this guilt that I now feel; this sudden realisation of the wider picture; perhaps this is the start of that mind broadening process. I have much to think about.

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